China should have given more freedom to parents on the one-child rule: Mei Fong

Mei Fong, former China correspondent of ‘The Wall Street Journal’, also indicates that publishers in Hong Kong feel a sense of shame at being coerced into not publishing political books on China


Mei Fong at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2017. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Mei Fong at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2017. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

Jaipur: Mei Fong, a former China correspondent with The Wall Street Journal, published the book One Child: The Past and Future of China’s Most Radical Experiment in 2015 just around the time that China relaxed the policy and allowed its citizens to have more than one child.

Fong has been critical of the policy and looks at the various ways in which it affected people, from women forced to abort a late-term pregnancy, the guilt officials felt at enforcing the rigid rules, the parents who lost their only child in the Sichuan earthquake, to the many children born in secret who couldn’t be registered as citizens. While writing the book, she also had an offer from a Chinese language publisher. But unfortunately, during the time she was done with the book, five Hong Kong publishers who published books critical of the Chinese political leadership were kidnapped, and later appeared in mainland China. Since then, political books have vanished from Hong King bookstores. To counter this, Fong has got her book translated into Mandarin on her own, though the translator has requested anonymity, and last month she put a digital version of it out for free on her website. Edited excerpts from an interview:.

What’s been the impact of the relaxation of the one-child policy in China in this past year and more?

One of the things that’s good about the changes in the relaxation is that at least more people have more choice now. In terms of the actual numbers, there’s been a slight uptake in birth which is only to be expected now that people have more choice. But the indications are that it’s not a big jump. And many demographers predict that it’s not going to make a significant increase. There have been other times in the previous history of the one-child policy where such relaxations have been made, where all birth rates have always been far below projections.

There have been indications that people, at least in urban areas, are choosing not to have more than one child. A lot of surveys indicate that many say it’s too expensive, the cost of having children. And that’s because, in a way, China is not a communist country in a sense that education is free or subsidized, health care is expensive, housing is expensive. Of course there’s the other reason: You spend 30 something years on propaganda telling everybody that the one-child idea is the ideal. You can’t expect some of it not to stick. And to expect the complete reversal in thinking within the space of one year isn’t realistic.

Have you been back in China since the book’s been published?

No. And I sometimes do wonder if I might be allowed. To be fair, nobody in China has invited me to come and do this. Why am I at the Jaipur Literature Festival and not the Beijing Literature Festival, you have to ask yourself.

You have put a Chinese translation of the book out for free download on your website. But how easy is it for people in China to download it?

It’s digital and you know China has great firewalls, but people do get around it. I’ve made it as easy, but the difficulty is people may not know about it. I don’t get any press in China. So it has to be word of mouth, has to be transferred that way. I really have no way of knowing. The fact that I don’t have a book in bookshelves is kind of sad. People aren’t going to see it and feel it and touch it. But since I put out my free version a month ago, I’ve actually noticed a renewed interest by publishers in Hong Kong and China to actually publish the book now. It appears to me to be prompted by—I don’t want to use the word shame—a certain awareness that this is not the way things should be. I received an offer from one publisher who I am not going to name because I don’t know how things will go. He said, ‘I heard about the fact that you couldn’t get this published, and I think it is a shame to us.’ I appreciate the sentiment because I think it indicates that we recognise this is not the right way of doing things, publishers are terrorized from publishing books because they are afraid they will be kidnapped and vanish. This shouldn’t be a norm, this shouldn’t be acceptable.

The offer you’ve got is then good news, since it means publishers are overcoming their fears.

I’m cautious. I think all of this can do things. This (the free translation in Mandarin) was not cheap for me. It took a lot of time, a lot of planning. This was something I could do and so I did it. What I am hoping is that other people, in similar circumstances, will also think there may be other ways around it.

Could you tell me about the genesis of the book, why did this issue consume you enough to look at China through its lens.

It was obviously the most interesting things about China that I think a lot of people seize upon from the start. But to be fair, by the time I was working in the mid 2000s, it kind of receded to the background. The big story was China’s economic ascendance. And I worked for The Wall Street Journal, which is a business paper. This wasn’t really on the top of my mind. What I was really afraid of was being the kind of correspondent who after finishing his or her term of service would come out with a cliched book about China, you know the tiger jumps over the wall... There have been such books that we’ve laughed over and I didn’t want to be laughed at. Also , I write about a lot of personal things in the book, my miscarriage, my attempts to have a child which failed. And these are kind of personal issues that we journalists are not trained to write, we’re not part of the story. But when my time in China was done, when I started thinking what I am going to write about, I looked at all these different things and thought, maybe this could make a uniform story. The meaning of having children, what happens when policy and desire intersect.

You were obviously going to be critical of the one-child policy. What were the challenges you faced as a journalist researching on the book.

For me personally, I haven’t seen any. I was careful to work under the radar. And this comes from my years as a journalist. It was never about the difficulties for you, it’s about the people you interview. So there were some cases where people who are interviewed asked to remain off the record, or asked for certain details to be obscured. I really tried to also get people on the record. And for officials, of course, this was very difficult. Which is why many of the officials I spoke to are retired officials. I try not to be confrontational and avoid problems.

There are so many heartbreaking stories within your book. Which affected you the most?

There were lots. There were a couple I talked about in the beginning of the book. The father went back and tried to have a reverse sterilisation because their daughter died in the earthquake and they tried to have a second one, and you know I could see it was very difficult for them. He was 50 and she was 45, in a remote area, and they kept saying how awful life was in a village if you had no children. I felt really bad for them. And I lost touch with them. I always wondered if they had any children or were able to reconcile their loss. The funny thing is after I wrote that story initially in the newspaper, I got an email from a women in the US, and she had undergone IVF. She said I was so touched by the story of this couple, I want to give them one of my fertilized embryos. It was not possible, but I liked the gesture.

There was also a story I wrote about this farmer who had gone to work in the factory, met a girl and they had an affair, and she was too young to get married, 16 or 17, and legal age of marriage is 20. They went back to his home village, she gave birth to a little girl, and after a period of time they left the child with his parents and went back to work. The child was not registered since they were not married. The family planning officials came and took the child, put her in an orphanage and she was later adopted by an American couple. And I met the father years later, and he’s still looking for his daughter.

So what’s the status of the huge number of unregistered children in China now?

This is one of the good things post the change in the policy. The government has agreed to let these unregistered children—something in the reign of 13 million—get registration papers, which is great because they can now suddenly start being citizens. But for many of them it’s already too late. They’ve already missed their school years.

Some of the older ones are in their 20s and 30s. All those years they couldn’t go to school, it’s gone, it’s done. You also speak of the elderly who suffer, especially if they don’t have children, since nursing homes won’t admit them and it’s difficult for them to buy burial plots. There’s something called shidu, parents who’ve lost their only child, there’s a special name for them in China. I think there are a million now. Every year there are 75,000 more. One of the things the Chinese government talk of doing is setting up nursing homes that are separate for just these kind of parents, which is what they’ve asked for. But it’s all very early stage.

What are the steps the Chinese government ought to take up now to address the issues caused by the one-child policy?

They have just loosened the parameters. I think there’s a lot of discussion whether they should just drop it. Even though two children are allowed, some people will not want to have any children at all. Some people will want to have three children. So if you really want to redress your falling birth rates, you really should give them more freedom. Certainly they need to do more with making a more family friendly environment which means bigger subsidies for schooling and childcare. There are also concerns about women that they will be discriminated against in the workplace. Employers may say I am not going to hire women who may look like they will have a second child. Stronger workplace protection laws need to be in place.

More From Livemint